Adopting Realism: The Century 1962-1971
by James M. Wall
James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century. This article appeared in the Christian Century December 12, 1984, p. 1170. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
“Nach Amerika gehen? Das ist für Brunner, aber nich für mich!” The Christian Century quoted that statement (which may be apocryphal) from Karl Barth in preparing its readers for the eminent Swiss theologian’s 1962 visit to the United States. Barth and the Century had viewed the world quite differently during the previous 35 years, a contrast the magazine oversimplified as withdrawal from the world to regroup (in Barth’s case) versus continued involvement in society’s struggles.
Then in April 1962, the 70-year-old Barth lifted his boycott of the United States to accept a three-city invitation to deliver lectures in this country. His first stop was Chicago, where he packed the 2,400-seat Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago for a series of talks titled “Introduction to Evangelical Theology.” Seated in a front press pew just below the pulpit, the Century editors -- long a journalistic embodiment of classic liberalism -- came to debate (and to admire) this gracious man whose “pessimism’’ had so riled the optimistic American church. The editors were not converted in that weeklong exposure, but they were impressed with this man who had once likened the “American way of life” to the biblical “fleshpots of Egypt.’’
Eager to wage war against society’s failure to care for the helpless, the Century had been restless with Barth’s insistence that the church’s prime responsibility was to open itself to God’s mysterious transcendence. Now, listening to him along with the worshipful and the skeptical, the editors had to acknowledge that “theology has come to be taken most seriously again in our time where it defines itself most modestly, without slippery movements into all the other disciplines, without fastening an encroaching grasp or a suffocating embrace on other human enterprises” (May 16, 1962).
It was a time, they understood Barth to be saying, to retreat in order to advance, prophesy, attack. But how could the church make that crucial move? Barth himself had “redefined theology” and put it to work with such passion that “no area of culture or society is really foreign to his interests.” They noted that this Swiss scholar moved easily from Moses to Mozart, from Mesopotamia to East Germany, from obedience to Caesar to defiance of Hitler. However, even as they admired his catholicity, they still could not find the point at which the shift from transcendence to involvement took place.
There was no hostility in the Century’s coverage of Barth’s American tour, only grudging admiration for the enormous impact of Barthian thought on every generation since the 1920s. And that influence touched the orthodox evangelical as readily as it reached the elite intellectual liberal.
Barth’s visit became a media event in 1962, assured by his appearance on the cover of Time. But for the Century it marked something else: a slowly shifting awareness that, hereafter, social gains would be achieved in a more “realistic” atmosphere. The 1954 Supreme Court decision to integrate public schools “with all deliberate speed” was taking longer than the magazine had predicted. And a major obstacle to breaking the barriers of race was the church itself. The Methodists, for instance, were still mired in debate over what to do with their own segregated Central Jurisdiction. While Karl Barth’s April 1962 visit did not break new theological. ground, it did symbolize a fusion of optimism on this side of the Atlantic with Europe’s doctrinal insistence that God would not be mocked by the slowness of society’s structural changes.
The decade 1962-1971 -- the era covered by this final article in the Century’s centennial series -- began with Barth’s arrival and ended with the last gasp of the McGovern movement’s political attempt to impose idealism on an increasingly conservative public.
In those years the Century and the rest of the country lived through three assassinations of national leaders -- two Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. The war in Vietnam escalated to an appalling level, and racism became more ugly and obvious, not just an embarrassing presence in society. Three editors served the magazine in that period, an unusually frequent change of command for a magazine that has known only six chief editors from 1908 to the present.
In 1964 Harold E. Fey completed his 24-year stint with the magazine -- eight years as editor -- just in time for former managing editor Kyle Haselden to begin his four-year editorship with an editorial endorsing President Lyndon B. Johnson for re-election. A brain tumor took Haselden’s life at age 55 in 1968. He was succeeded by Alan Geyer, who served through 1971. I started my tenure in June of 1972.
The ‘60s were exhilarating times, stunning in sudden shifts of public sentiment and horrifying in the destruction from riots and war. Through the decade the Century kept a watchful eye on some of its major concerns -- race relations; church-state separation; the ongoing and welcome developments of Vatican II; the rights of the Palestinians; the threat of extremists to religious liberalism -- but it displayed a realistic adjustment to the times. The imperialism that had led the editors to share cold-war sentiments against any manifestation of communist strength now gave way to a recognition that something other than communist expansionism was happening in Vietnam. The legitimate urge of a people to establish their own future was also at work.
In an impassioned report written from Washington, D.C., Editor Haselden described a gathering of 2,400 clergy, seminarians, nuns and laypeople who came together January 31-February 1, 1967, “to condemn as morally irresponsible U.S. military intervention in Vietnam’s civil war, to plead with the administration to abandon brutal warfare against civilians and to beg their senators and representatives to take whatever steps are necessary to secure a negotiated peace” (February 15, 1967). The mobilization had been called by Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, one of the first such efforts by the activist group now known as Clergy and Laity Concerned.
Haselden joined the conference’s Illinois delegation when it visited its elected public servants. He was struck by the contrast between veteran Senator Everett Dirksen -- who shouted at one delegate a “peevish, boorish command, ‘Hush up!’” -- and the state’s freshman senator, Charles Percy -- who displayed “an obvious willingness to have members of his constituency reason with him about [his stand].”
The two-day meeting also included two mass meetings at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, featuring addresses by Robert McAfee Brown, William Sloane Coffin and Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel, each of whom would, in the ensuing years, continue to be outspoken opponents of the nation’s Vietnam policy. Congressional support for the protesters ranged from the polite Percy audience to speeches from vigorous antiadministration senators: Wayne Morse (D., Ore.), Ernest Gruening (D., Alaska) and Eugene McCarthy (D., Minn.).
Rabbi Heschel twice quoted a section of a position paper by the event’s organizers that stated the need to take steps for peace. ‘‘If we do not take those steps, we firmly believe that God will judge us harshly, and will hold us accountable for the horror we continue to unleash.” The war in Vietnam, started under John F. Kennedy, was now being escalated into a major conflict by a president whom The Christian Century had endorsed just two and one-half years earlier.
“Yes,” Haselden boldly proclaimed, “we endorse Johnson.” He did so not merely because of the fears raised by Goldwater, “but because a Johnson-Humphrey administration will handle both the perils and the promises facing this nation soberly, wisely and successfully.” Johnson’s “spotty” civil rights record caused some concern, but not enough to halt the endorsement.
Haselden was not naïve. He knew the IRS regulations as well as any other editor, but he dropped the “other shoe” because he strongly feared a Goldwater administration. Ironically, the technical violation of IRS rules might have gone unnoticed except that right-wing leader Billy James Hargis, who lost his tax exemption for politicizing his religious radio station, protested that the Century’s editorial exceeded the tax guidelines. An audit followed, after which the one-year punishment was leveled.
When Haselden in early 1967 joined church resistance to the Johnson administration’s Vietnam policies, he was not being inconsistent with the 1964 endorsement. There had been a general consensus during the election that Johnson was to be trusted over Goldwater to keep his finger off the nuclear button. In Congress the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which gave the president unlimited freedom to pursue his war, passed with minimum protest. Soon, however, the optimism of 1964 vanished in the muddy jungles of Vietnam and the bloody streets of Saigon.
And as that optimism diminished, the Century also turned from its traditional assumption that American-style democracy was so superior to any other political option that it deserved automatic celebration wherever it encountered opposition. Right-wing extremists took over unbridled patriotism in the 1960s -- a development that led, unfortunately, to the identification of the left, including the Century, as opponents of the United States. This identification, as the 1984 presidential campaign showed, allowed both sophisticated conservatives and anti-intellectual fundamentalists to brand any criticism of U.S. foreign policy as unpatriotic.
A good example of these false charges took place when, in 1962, John Bennett, then dean of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, submitted a letter to the editor in response to conservative attacks. Bennett had appeared on a television program and made the case that, as he explained it, “we should avoid identifying the Christian opposition to communism as a faith and an ideology with the international conflict involved in the ‘cold war.’ Christians should oppose communism by appropriate methods both religiously and politically, but they should not combine the passions of religion with the hostilities and fears of politics” (February 28, 1962).
Bennett was writing in reply to a charge in a newspaper column by Barry Goldwater, then two years away from his unsuccessful race for president. Goldwater, alluding to Bennett’s TV appearance, quoted the theologian as saying that “the church should not fight communism.” Bennett pointed out in his letter that Goldwater omitted an important adjective in that quote, for he had actually argued that the church should not be engaged in “a holy war” against communism.”
The issue joined between Bennett and Goldwater in 1962 is precisely the same battle that is being waged in 1984, and the right’s tactics do not seem to have changed -- though its sophistication has increased. Indeed, in the 1960s the liberal church leadership grew careless in part because the opposition from the right was so bombastic and uninformed. Carl McIntire’s crusade was in full force then, but he attracted little serious public attention. Fred Schwarz’s Christian Anti-Communism Crusade became something of a traveling road show, moving into major cities to preach patriotism and hatred, denouncing the “commie-led World Council of Churches.”
One of Schwarz’s crusades took place in Seattle, Washington. Just before the crusade, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish leaders in the city issued a strong statement denouncing those “who cast doubt upon the loyalty of the state department and officials in other departments of government, and many of our proven patriots and statesmen of long standing (February 28, 1962). The Seattle leaders insisted that they “stood adamant against the communist evil,” but they wanted the public to notice the “threatening likeness between certain anticommunist movements now in vogue and events which transpired in Germany and Italy incident to the rise of the nazi and fascist regimes.”
What we did have throughout that decade, as the Century pages indicate, was a growing dismay over the inability of a democracy to halt racism at home and an immoral war abroad. As they despaired over fostering change through the process, secular antiwar movements -- which strongly influenced church attitudes, both negatively and positively -- became extreme in their efforts to awaken a stubborn public. Long-haired youth brandishing Vietnamese flags and the sight of an American flag being burned and trampled soon turned the national mood from unease to ugliness. Polarization took over, and by the time the Democratic Party (with the almost unanimous support of mainline liberal churchpeople) had reformed itself enough to take the presidential nomination from traditional liberals and bestow it on a more radical candidate, the crusade’s tactics had doomed the movement to minority status.
If one looks back from the perspective of the 1984 Reagan landslide, it is evident that the defeat of radicalism in 1972 has now been joined in history by the additional defeat of traditional liberalism in 1984. First McGovern and now Mondale, both sons of Methodist preachers, have been decisively repudiated by the American public. That repudiation, however, need not be the final word on the turmoil of the 1960s, a time when change was not, in fact, slow, and did not come with “deliberate speed” but was harshly thrust upon us. Progress was made then through a liberal religious-secular alliance. Today in the 1980s a potential war in Nicaragua draws widespread opposition, military budgets are closely examined, and social programs are still defended. Victories don’t always come through political elections; sometimes, as has been said of John Ford movies, we may achieve “victory through defeat.”
This may be an insight gained from merging the pessimism that Karl Barth felt about humankind and the optimism he felt about the transcendent God -- insight that came gradually to The Christian Century editors during the 1960s.